Most places that lure diners with novelty acts bomb. That's because it doesn't matter how entertaining the gimmick might be -- like the common cold and romantic infatuation, it always runs its course. Sure, there was great fun to be had in the '70s, during the halcyon days of Kansas City joints such as Victoria Station (eat in a railroad car!), Baby Doe's (eat in an old mine!) and the Monastery (eat in religious quarters and be served by "monks!"). But when the gimmick got old, it was over.
Nearly thirty years ago, the old downtown Holiday Inn hotel (which later became the Americana, the Omni and, currently, the Doubletree) introduced the idea of a slowly spinning dining room with a sensational view. That concept might also have gone the way of the Magic Pan -- in fact, the room on that hotel's 28th floor hasn't budged an inch in years and isn't a restaurant anymore. But Kansas City has never put the brakes on the turntable format, which was totally eclipsed by the more glamorous and considerably more lofty Skies at the Hyatt Regency hotel.
Skies has been spinning since 1980. Veteran server John Hastings remembers that when it opened, the restaurant on the 43rd floor didn't even have a real kitchen. "We brought up everything from the kitchens down on the lower floors and served things that could be heated up, like lobster and prime rib," he says. "Now we have a full kitchen and make everything here except the bread and the pastries."
Hastings has been at Skies long enough to see it through three major renovations, including the most recent this past February. Workers gutted the round, two-tiered room, ripping out the hideous mid-'80s "industrial" décor and replacing it with a light, fresh design that's both elegant and informal. Despite the blond woodwork and mottled copper-green walls, however, the best décor is outside the windows. The room makes a full rotation every hour. It's best at dusk, when the 360-degree view encompasses the silvery curve of the Missouri River, the forlorn downtown landscape -- with more parking lots and old brick warehouses than it seems when you're driving around on street level -- and the urban neighborhoods stretching beyond Midtown out to the suburbs.
One night as my friend Marilyn sipped a Grey Goose martini, I pointed out some of my favorite landmarks: the newly restored bell tower on the old Webster School building in the Crossroads; the haunted yellow brick hulk of the long-vacant Christian Hospital peeping out from a thicket of leafy oak trees over a block west of Paseo. I was enraptured by the panorama, but Marilyn found a flaw in the restaurant's circular design. "You can't see people at other tables," she said. "It's not a see-and-be-seen restaurant."
That was perfectly fine with me but not for the more socially conscious Marilyn, who felt she was on a Worlds of Fun ride that masqueraded as a restaurant. Except for the one or two tables immediately adjacent to ours, we couldn't see anything except the view outside. I suspect she might have enjoyed our crusty crab-cake appetizer (made with snow crab instead of the lump crab promised on the menu) more if she could have caught a glimpse of one of her society chums at a nearby table.